Tag Archives: OWN

Like Midas’ Touch, But in Reverse: Further Reasons to Distrust the Rob Bell/Oprah Vortex

Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.
Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.

The conversation around Rob Bell’s recent career move has been interesting.  Many are fascinated at what the Oprah Machine will turn out.  Some are skeptical, and others are quick to defend.  It seems that Bell has now been “claimed” by the progressive camp, and anyone who questions his sanctity  must be rooted out and destroyed, much like the Inquisition that the progressives (claim to) abhor.  Enter an article published by Relevant under the hysterical title, “What the Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity,” which defends the founder of Mars Hill thus:

“Bell is no fast food, arm-chair theologian, remember.

He’s a Bible geek whose experience with and understanding of the ancient Scriptures was one of the main reasons for his rise in the first place. This wasn’t a guy who skimmed the easy passages. This wasn’t someone who preached from the cozy confines of the Creation story, or the Psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount.”

He also charges that Bell’s critics now are the same as those before: those vile heresy-hunters are now coming out of the woodwork to crucify (side note: I despise these histrionics) Bell all over again.  But not so fast.

I’m a fan of Bell’s, as I established in my previous post.  I never called him a heretic. I still don’t think he is one.  But I seriously question his association with Oprah.  Why? Because she destroys those she touches.  Like Midas, the mythological king who turned what he touched to gold, Oprah turns those she touches to shit.

Consider Dr. Mehmet Oz. A legitimate surgeon before Oprah put her stamp on him, Dr. Oz has faced growing criticism for his seemingly un-scientific, medically-questionable claims.  He’s even had to go before Congress to defend himself.  A new study has found that more than half of his claims have no basis in medical science.  More than half! Just made up.

So it’s not that Bell is some heretic who should be thrown into the outer darkness. It’s that he’s associating with someone who corrupts, someone who brings commercial success at the price of dignity, integrity, and ultimately the truth.

And I, for one, appreciate Bell’s gifts too damn much to be okay with that.

I hope it doesn’t happen. I hope that Rob is able to resist lure of the limelight, the temptation to so popularize one’s message that all credibility is sacrificed.  As a New York doctor said (quoted in the Post article above),

“Mehmet is now an entertainer…And he’s great at it … [But] sometimes Mehmet will entertain wacky ideas — particularly if they are wacky and have entertainment value.”

Will Bell make the most of this opportunity, and use his platform to represent Christian wisdom and charity well, or will he sell out a-la Doctor Oz, dispensing theological prescriptions as corrupt and false as they are easily digestible?

Only time will tell.

Update: A friend passed on this clip from the Rob Bell Show, featured on the OWN website, which seems to indicate that, at least to a degree, Rob is not going to shy away completely from robust Christian themes.

Relevance Kills: Rob Bell and Pyrrhic Victory

Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.
Me and Rob in 2010 at Duke.

Relevance destroys.  You can sell a lot of burgers, but that makes you McDonalds.  Your album went triple platinum? The Spice Girls have you beat.  I fear that the once-respected evangelical pastor Rob Bell is becoming a spiritual McDonalds, a pop shadow of his former self.  Will he serve billions and billions more? Likely. But a burger made for the masses is neither tasty nor nutritious (nor a burger).

First things first.  I genuinely have affection for Bell.  I showed Nooma videos to my young adults.  I defended him when those with no sense of doctrinal history condemned him for age-old questions asked in Love Wins.  I saw him speak live at Duke and even got my picture taken with him. (He’s much taller than me.)

But I was saddened to read a recent interview with him by RNS.  I can live with controversial, envelope-pushing popular Christian reflection. I can tolerate the hipster glasses and skinny jeans.  But getting in league with Oprah and her army of overhyped pseudo-experts? This is a bridge too far.

Think about the other personalities under Oprah’s corporate umbrella:

  • Dr. Phil McGraw, a straight-talking Texan who dispenses counseling mints to millions of homes a week, making the frightening and deep inner work of therapy look as simple as talking to your local rodeo clown.  While McGraw does have a legitimate doctorate in clinical psychology, he has not been licensed to practice in any state since 1989.  (Imagine me offering advice on the church, pastoral care, and theology if my denomination had severed ties with me over 20 years ago!)
  • Dr. Mehmet Oz, a leading surgeon whose television success came at the expense of putting  his stamp on all kinds of snake oil backed by psuedo-science.  Some of his claims about phony weight loss products were so egregious that the US Senate got involved (because priorities).

In both instances, their relevance to mass audiences have taken legitimate concerns (physical and mental health) and commodified them to the point of tragicomedy.

A few years ago, I would have thought Bell a poor fit for such company, but now I am less certain.  Perhaps burned from the (admittedly ridiculous) backlash following Love Wins, Bell has essentially abandoned the church:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church.  “We have a little tribe of friends,” Bell said. “We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”

I wonder what the thousands of people who came to faith under Bell’s ministry at Mars Hill think of this? Personally, I would feel as if I’d been sold a bag of magic beans.  To think of it another way: the guy who so smoothly and confidently convinced you to buy a Honda is now driving a Fiat.

Rob Bell’s obsession with relevance – the desire to “matter” to the concerns and questions of contemporary culture – turns out to have been an invitation to entropy.  Bell is now so relevant that he seems to have little interest in Christianity.  Last year, in a speech at Vanderbilt University, he introduced himself as everything but a pastor, and didn’t mention his former calling until about 20 minutes in.  Moreover, when asked by RNS about working with Oprah, a notorious consumer from and promoter of the buffet of quasi-spiritualities, he responded:

“Is she a Christian? That word has so much baggage, I wouldn’t want to answer for someone. When Jesus talks about the full divine life, you think, this is what he’s talking about.”

I have no idea when Jesus talked about “the full divine life,” except when speaking about himself.  If the price of cultural relevance is that the “baggage” of a basic descriptor like ‘Christian’ is too much to palate or the particularity of the Son of God is an embarrassment, then it is time to stop making a fool’s bargain.

Rob spent a church building a career career building a church that was “relevant.”  The threshold for entry was low; it didn’t look, talk, or feel like “church,” and people responded in droves. Bell, in turn, built his brand on identifying with the non-religious and skeptic folks who were turned off by anything too obviously Christian.  But now, it appears, he has gone native.

dr philA pyrrhic victory is one which is too costly to be considered a legitimate win.  Bell’s trajectory shows clearly that the cost of cultural acceptance – the cost of relevance – is too high to pay.  The relevant pastor and the relevant congregation will find much success, as the world defines it.  But in earning that victory, it appears that one becomes so co-opted that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Looking back to the Civil War, we might consider the example of Confederate General Robert E. Lee constantly defeating Ulysses Grant’s attacks with superior tactics, but unable to sustain the campaign in the face of the superior resources of the North, who could afford the losses.  Likewise, pastors and churches who win the battle for relevance soon realize the long-term costs are far higher than first anticipated, and will then often find themselves co-opted beyond all restoration by the world they were trying to reach.  Playing to consumerism ends up consuming you.

Rob Bell is our next Dr. Phil, an expert whose expertise has been twisted to relevant, market-driven agenda.  He has gone from a pastor, a guide of souls, a preacher of the gospel, to just another space filler in Oprah’s cubby of spiritual shills.

A pyrrhic victory, if ever there was one.